By Marissa Martinez/Texas Tribune
Texas’ statewide mask mandate has ended as of March 10. Businesses are also now allowed to operate at full capacity as long as the hospitals in their region haven’t been treating a large share of patients for COVID-19. Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was loosening those restrictions so “businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny.”
Health officials still emphasize the importance of wearing face masks to contain spread of the virus, alongside handwashing and social distancing. Several Democratic leaders called the executive order “dangerous,” including President Joe Biden, who said it was a “big mistake” to end the mask mandate. In addition, three of Abbott’s four coronavirus medical advisers say they were not directly consulted before he lifted the mandate.
Abbott said the state is in a “completely different position” than it was last year, with more access to testing, successful treatments, protective equipment and vaccines. However, Texas is still descending from a harsh winter surge that killed thousands and overwhelmed intensive care units across the state. Abbott’s decision to relax restrictions was announced as Texas averaged over 200 reported deaths a day and as Houston reported the presence of every COVID-19 variant, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Here’s a look at what the loosened restrictions mean for Texans:
- Statewide, masks will no longer be required in public for the first time since last summer. Abbott made face coverings mandatory for most Texans on July 2. While more than 30 states still require masking, Texas is the most populous state to not require them. But federal, state and local health officials say masks should still be worn and other precautions should be taken to slow the virus’ spread.
- School boards, courts and college campuses can still require masks. Local governments can also require them in their facilities. Masks are still required on federal property, on public transportation and in public schools. Days after Abbott’s announcement, Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso leaders announced that masks will be required to enter city-owned indoor spaces like libraries, police and fire department headquarters, convention centers and transportation hubs.
- The legal protections for enforcing mask usage have been significantly lessened under the order — county judges and local officials cannot jail or impose penalties on those who refuse to wear a mask, nor penalize businesses that do not mandate mask usage. They can still enforce trespassing ordinances, though.
- Austin and Travis County public health leaders say that they will continue requiring residents to wear masks in public. But officials didn’t say how they’ll enforce the order. If Austin does try to enforce its mask rule, it could set up a new legal showdown between the state and its capital city.
- Many business owners have said they will require masks, while others feel powerless to enforce such a rule. Some businesses have already faced backlash.
- Businesses can return to 100% capacity, but may still limit capacity or enforce safety protocols “at their own discretion,” according to Abbott’s latest order. That directive states that businesses can still require employees or customers to wear masks. H-E-B, ALDI, Kroger and Target are among businesses that will still require masks. As of Tuesday, Walmart had not released updated guidance following the announcement; its current policy still requires in-store masking.
- Officials in areas with a large share of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 can scale back business operations. Local officials can limit business operations to 50% capacity if more than 15% of hospital capacity in their region is being used to treat patients with COVID-19 for seven consecutive days or more. If that threshold is met or exceeded, there are no automatic restrictions; local officials must issue them.
- Inmate visitation at county and municipal jails can resume for the first time since Abbott declared a public health disaster last year, bringing some relief for Texas prisoners. Visits need to be scheduled in advance and only one adult can visit at a time. A negative test result and face masks will be required, and no physical contact will be allowed.
Disclosure: H-E-B and Walmart have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Cover photo: Masks are no longer required by the government in Texas, but businesses and other locations can still require them. (Claudia Tristán/El Paso Matters)